Lost At Sea
Outside magazine, March 1997
Lost At Sea
Tragic are the people of the lovely Marshall Islands. When America exploded the A-bomb it took their homes, and when it gave comfort it took their ambition, and when it offered only craven solutions it took their hope. Now the Marshallese look to America once more, and the natives are growing restless. A dispatch from the atomic archipelago.
At the Kwajalein Airport, Steven from Army public relations met our group and gave me a limp handshake. “I have been authorized to tell you that we are unable to support your application for admission to Kwajalein,” he said, “but we will escort you to the boat to Ebeye.”
A dislocated American community dropped in the endless blue of the western Pacific, Kwajalein island is a strange, Strangeloveian place, whose inhabitants spend their days tracking death machines. The U.S. Army rents the island from the Marshallese government for $9 million a year, and has established a $2 billion American missile-testing base with a vast array of satellite
Public relations has rarely let journalists do more than pass through the residential part of Kwajalein since the release of Home on the Range, a 1990 documentary about the attempts by local islanders to get their land back when the U.S. lease temporarily lapsed in the late 1980s. The camera followed the island’s actual owner into the Kwaj
“Do you have a contact point on Ebeye?” Steven asked. I was beginning to dislike him: a short man with dingy, denture-colored hair. “No,” I said. “Well…” he replied dolefully, shaking his head as if I would be parachuting into North Korea. We got into a blue van, and Steven drove us past the softball fields and tennis courts, down clean asphalt streets with American families
We stopped at the bakery and bought a bag of rolls. “You will not be able to proceed with that through security,” Steven said. “It will cause a security situation.”
“The bread?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “Because of the political situation. Like that root beer you’ve got.” He stabbed at my soda. “It’s only 50 cents here–special rate for Americans. On Ebeye it’s $1.00, even $1.50. Black market opportunity.”
Photographer David Roth and I were traveling with Jack Niedenthal, an American who is now employed as the official liaison for the Bikinian people, and his wife, Regina, a stout native Bikinian with a slow, inward smile. Had things worked according to plan, we wouldn’t have spent more than a half-hour on Kwajalein, but things here rarely work according to plan. We had been
En route to Bikini, we’d bounced westward between the northern and southern chains of atolls, flying low over fringing reefs and bone-white sand spits, then plunging onto rutted coral runways to drop off basketball hoops and Primus stoves for Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries who wandered dazedly out of the breadfruit thickets. The Marshallese shyly hung back or were out of
The entire country’s land area is only 70 square miles–slightly less than the District of Columbia–and yet that real estate is scattered among 1,225 islands that stretch over some 350,000 square miles of the western Pacific. It seemed as though we landed on half of them as we hopscotched west. Most were precisely the sort of picturebook Pacific arcadias dreamed by
We brazenly smuggled the bakery rolls onto the ferry, risking life in the stockades, and made the 15-minute trip to Ebeye–just another leg in my two-week tour of this blighted outpost of the American empire. As the army transport vessel churned in the lagoon, I noticed the benches were stenciled with admonitions, presumably to the Marshallese: please clean up your mess.
The streets on Ebeye were narrow and packed with children, many of them wheeling on a single roller skate while a friend used the other. The tropical heat was merciless, and there was nowhere to hide from the sun, since virtually all of the island’s palm trees were chopped down long ago to make room for shanties.
I rode in a new air-conditioned Hyundai with Sam Bellu, a paunchy grocery store owner who wanted to show me around his island. Bellu, 51, wore camouflage shorts and had an air of impatience unusual among the famously reticent Marshallese. He was a proud guide, though, showing me the U.S.-built water tower, the U.S.-built hospital, the U.S.-built causeway to nearby islets. The
Bellu stopped the car near the island’s dump. Children were here, too, playing king of the hill in the mound of trash. He stared at me, perhaps trying to gauge how closely I identified with my country. Then he decided to be frank. “On the bad side,” Bellu said, “the U.S. did drop all those bombs here, exposing us to the radiation. It’s theirs, not
He killed the engine, and with the car’s air-conditioning no longer putting out, I was immediately drenched in sweat.
Bellu was talking about the 66 nuclear bombs that the U.S. military had detonated in the Marshalls between 1946 and 1958, making the chain of islands one of most contaminated places on earth. But he could just as easily have been talking about America’s cultural flotsam, which has likewise irradiated Ebeye and many other islands in the Marshalls and left them without a clear
Like the Philippines, the Falklands, and Vietnam, the Marshall Islands chain has long been a helpless crossroads for the traffic of history. Superpowers, their eyes on wider horizons, have had their way with the place without ever grasping its nature. Named in honor of British sea captain John Marshall, who explored the archipelago in the eighteenth century, the islands became
The Marshalls’ feudal system has survived democracy: The local iroij, or chief, still has absolute power. But American influence pervades, from the Patriot missile casings that serve islanders as washtubs to Rita and Laura, towns on Majuro that homesick soldiers named for Rita Hayworth and Lauren Bacall. The paramount American legacy, however, is
By far the most devastating test was the 15-megaton “Bravo” shot, in 1954. Detonated on the Bikini atoll, Bravo was 1,000 times more powerful than the Crossroads blasts; awesomely, it exceeded the combined strength of all the weapons ever fired in the history of humankind. Unfortunately, Pentagon officials proceeded with the test even though winds had shifted east from their
“I have had seven miscarriages and stillbirths,” a Rongelapian woman told a House committee investigating Marshallese health problems in 1984. “There are eight other women on the island who have given birth to babies that look like blobs of jelly…no legs, no arms, no head, no nothing.” Bravo made the Rongelap, Enewetak, and Bikini atolls uninhabitable. And for many years
In 1968 the Atomic Energy Commission and President Johnson himself announced that Bikini was absolutely safe, but the Bikinians, who’d been shuffled between crummy substitute islands for decades, often near starvation, were suspicious. Over the next decade, 137 Bikinians warily drifted back. Their suspicions were soon justified: In 1978 the Department of Energy tested the
The Bikinians finally filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 1981, and in 1982 the United States grudgingly established three trust funds, totalling $185 million, for environmental restoration and reparations. It also funded a $105 million cleanup of Enewetak’s southern islands and in late 1996 gave Rongelap a $45 million resettlement fund. In 1988 the United States
But the tribunal has also rejected more than 4,000 claims. A number of Marshallese complained to me that too many of their countrymen tend to blame every cough or cataract on the bomb, hoping for personal guilt-money to supplement the roughly $70 million a year in general aid that the United States provides under a 15-year “Compact of Free Association”–a huge percentage of the
J. E. Tobin, an American anthropologist who was studying an exiled community of Bikinians on the island of Kili, foresaw the creation of a welfare culture in the Marshalls as early as 1953. “Positive action must be taken,” he warned, “or we will find ourselves with a group of bitter, frustrated, old-time ‘Reservation Indians’ on our hands, with a dole psychology and a hopeless
Earlier in the week, I sat with senator Wilfred Kendall in the boxy, Lego-block-style capitol on Majuro. Kendall was itemizing his republic’s problems, which he knows well as the former ambassador to the United States, as one of Majuro’s five representatives to the 33-member unicameral legislature, and perhaps just as important, as the owner of Majuro’s Mobil Station. (The
I hesitantly asked about global warming: A 50-centimeter rise in the sea level, which a UN scientific panel predicts during the next century, would swamp the entire country. Already waves lap over the road if the breeze freshens. “Yeah,” he sighed. “We’ll do something about that. But whatever it is, it won’t be good enough.”
It was hardly tourist brochure material. And yet for the first leg of my trip across the Marshalls, I’d been invited, along with six journalists from diving and fishing magazines, to “rediscover” Majuro, this long-overlooked spit that Robert Louis Stevenson once called “the pearl of the Pacific.” A slim jawbone often only 50 yards wide, the island runs for 30 miles and carries
Our arrival on Majuro was big news. At the Tide Table restaurant we were toasted by a dignitary who then serenaded us with “Kansas City.” The Marshall Islands Journal ran a story headlined “Majuro Media Blitz: ‘Big Hitters’ to Majuro,” just above “Aussies Like Clean Teeth.” We were ceremoniously lodged at the comfortable Outrigger, a brand-new
While Majuro itself fails to enchant, the atoll’s farther-flung islands are gorgeous and boast some of the finest reef diving in the Pacific. One morning we took the boat to nearby Arno and were escorted by 30 spinner dolphins plunging abreast of the bow. Below, we swam with star puffers, eagle rays, and silver-tipped sharks cruising over chunks of brain coral. When we
The morning after our dive, I had breakfast with Jim Abernathy, a white-bearded, sixtyish American who had been a longtime consultant to the country’s first president, Amata Kabua. We met in the Quik Stop coffee shop, a fluorescent-lit beehive in the heart of Majuro where most of the country’s governance actually seems to occur. I asked Abernathy, whose attitude toward the
Just then Rick Stinson slid into our red plastic booth carrying the requisite mug of Kona coffee and cigarette. A shrewd, funny Australian consultant with an unshaven face, Stinson had been hired to help reorganize the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I asked him the same question I’d asked Abernathy.”You can’t change just one,” Stinson said.”They have no idea what they’re doing. I asked the Undersecretary of Administration to write down what his three most important duties were, and he wrote (1) answering the phone, (2) sweeping the floor, (3) responding to mail. They don’t have money for stationery–they don’t even
Jiba Kabua came over to our booth. The late president’s eldest son, a senator and the scion of an all-powerful iroij family, Kabua was selling $5 tickets for a local band’s concert, wheedling us in the fashion of a high-school raffle. Abernathy and Stinson each bought one. (“If we didn’t,” Abernathy later explained, “he’d think we don’t like him.
When I asked Senator Kabua what one thing he’d change about the country, his thoughts turned to sex. “When the peoples’ arms and legs are chained in boredom,” he said, “this gets free.” He put his index finger atop his trouser zipper and waved it about. “It used to be subtle. I would roll a leaf in my right ear to signal the woman, ‘Watch out, today is our day.’ But the new
That evening, I saw firsthand what the senator was talking about. Around midnight all of us Big Hitters were at The Pub, the darkest joint in Majuro. A local band played bouncy, gecko-bar versions of “Lady Madonna” and “Fly Like an Eagle” as drunks were being stacked like cordwood in the parking lot. I was dancing to “The Locomotion” with a tourism promoter from Hawaii named
Jack Niedenthal is a 39-year-old man with dark spaniel eyes, the hair of an aging rock star, and an allergy to button-down shirts. Having grown up in Pennsylvania, he fell in love with the Marshalls in the early eighties as a Peace Corps volunteer on Namu, an outer island with only 200 people and no airstrip. (“NAMU” is unevenly tattooed across the fingers of his left hand.)
When his Peace Corps duty was up in 1984, Niedenthal moved to Majuro and since 1987 has devoted himself to representing the displaced Bikinian people in all their dealings with the wider world. It’s an insanely demanding job, mediating between a tiny, vulnerable constituency and the American colossus. Although he looked laid-back, I gradually discovered that Niedenthal was a
Niedenthal and I rented a tiny skiff from the docks at Majuro and puttered a few miles over to the island of Ejit. Upon landing we could faintly smell the stench of sewage. Styrofoam cups and USDA beef tins were scattered everywhere on the crushed coral commons. The place had the look and feel of a refugee camp. Two hundred and fifty displaced Bikinians live here, crowded into
As we walked around, we ran into Kelen Joash, a slight man of 66 wearing a white T-shirt and a Seiko watch. He was sitting on a plank, watching contentedly as workmen completed his $135,000 cinder-block house as part of a public-works project paid for, ultimately, by the United States. Joash was eager to move into his new house and get on with his life here on Ejit, but part of
Speaking in staccato Marshallese as Niedenthal translated, Joash recalled the day the Americans first came to Bikini. “The Japanese had just lost, and we were scared,” he said. “The Americans arrived with many, many people and planes and ships and uniforms with stars on them. It was wonderful to watch them come. One guy climbed a coconut tree and blew the top off with a grenade
Commodore Ben Wyatt chose to come ashore and address the wonder-struck islanders immediately following services at the United Church of Christ. (The Bikinians had been converted by New England missionaries in the nineteenth century.) God and the bomb were often yoked in those days, so Wyatt adopted biblical language. He compared the Bikinians to the “Children of Israel whom the
Probably closer to the truth is the recollection of another Bikinian I met on Ejit, a woman named Binirok who had been a 14-year-old girl at the time of Operation Crossroads: “They said, ‘Move,'” she told me, “and we moved.”
In July, 1946, the United States set off two 23-kiloton weapons, Able and Baker, in the vicinity of 95 surplus warships that had been gathered in Bikini lagoon. The Baker underwater test hurled a vast column of water a mile into the air and flung the 40,000-ton USS Saratoga half a mile away to sink, like a toy ship swatted by an ill-tempered
The world was electrified by this new atomic power, made giddy. French designer Louis Reard named his new two-piece swimsuit the bikini, hoping its effect on men would resemble an atomic explosion. When the Crossroads experiment ended, Admiral William Blandy blithely cut into a ceremonial cake baked in the shape of a mushroom cloud. In those days the lasting effects of
Between 1946 and 1958, the year President Eisenhower announced a moratorium on atmospheric testing, the United States set off 23 weapons on Bikini atoll. As it became apparent that they still weren’t going to be allowed to return home, the Bikinians slowly, against their trustful grain, came to feel betrayed. “The United States promised they would take care of us like we were
Now Kelen Joash looked fondly over at his shiny new windows. “It’s a beautiful house,” he said, “and I do thank America for this. But sometimes we feel like the moneys are not keeping pace with our desires. I don’t have beds and furniture yet, so I’ll be looking for a budget for that.”
“The Bikinians were once the hillbillies of the Marshall Islands,” an official on Majuro had told me. “Now they’re the Beverly Hillbillies.”
The Air Marshalls plane finally came to pick up Jack, Regina, David, and me on Kwajalein, and an hour later the Bikini atoll slid into view. From the air it looked like any other island in the Marshalls, until we circled the Bravo blast area, a deep-blue, mile-wide bite in the reef. We landed on Eneu, where the American military observers had crouched in concrete bunkers to
The Department of Energy had set up a small base camp on a crescent of white sand. There was a cafeteria, a barracks, a video room, and a few rooms built to accommodate the sport divers who come to explore the spectacular wrecks submerged in the lagoon. Aside from us, the dive masters, and a few Marshallese workers, most of the other two dozen people on the island were DOE
At sundown the team leader, William Robison, genially offered me a gin and tonic. A handsome, silver-haired man who wore flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt, he looked more like a beachcomber than a master of the atom. I told him how odd it was to find a place that had seen 23 nuclear blasts looking so normal, so beautiful, even.
Robison agreed, stressing that there was no present risk to us. “The gamma radiation you get walking around here is just natural background radiation, no problem at all.” The danger, he said, was not in the air, but in the soil: Nearly all the dirt on the island was laced with cesium 137, a radiocontaminant that concentrates in fruits and vegetables grown here. Although not
“This is the story of the island, right here,” he said, pointing 15 inches down to where the rich black humus ended and the dry coral sand began. “The problem is that this soil is very potassium-poor. And cesium 137 is chemically very similar to potassium. So all these plants take up cesium from the soil through their roots instead of potassium, and the cesium concentrates in
Robison has been working on the problem for the past 20 years. “Science got us into this mess,” he said, climbing back out of the trench, “but it can also get us out. It’s a beautiful island. And we owe the Bikinians their home back.”
For a long time the Bikinians wanted simply to remove all the soil from the entire island, a hugely expensive denuding project known as the Big Scrape. “That gets rid of the cesium, all right,” said Robison, “but then you’re left with a barren beach.” His mouth pursed.
Robison favors a much less drastic approach, one that involves scraping just the soil close to residences while periodically treating the island with large doses of potassium fertilizer. “We figured out that putting adequate amounts of potassium chloride on the soil every five years for the next 80 years will prevent the cesium from being taken up into the plants,” Robison
If the Bikinians approve Robison’s idea, they could be home in five years. But it is unlikely that more than a few hundred will return, for the exile has, over time, become less about the fading of radiation than about the fading of a way of life. Back on Majuro, I had spoken with a 28-year-old Bikinian named Alson Kelen, who had lived on Bikini briefly as a boy during the
Kelen fondly remembered the stories his father used to tell him of the old days on Bikini. “When I grew up,” he said, “I’d use my father’s arm as a pillow, and he’d tell me the legends, how to fish using a jabok, where you drive fish into shore with a net of coconut leaves. But when I talk to my younger brothers about when I lived on Bikini, about
Curiously, argue some DOE scientists, the Bikinian taste for American junk food has made the radiation problem on the atoll almost moot. “Since beer, Coke, and Kool-Aid have replaced coconut milk in their diet, the Bikinians could actually come back right now,” soil scientist Earl Stone told Jack Niedenthal and me over a plate of baby-back ribs in the DOE cafeteria.
One evening on Bikini, as the sun sank with absurd splendor into the lagoon, Jack Niedenthal and I sat on the porch of the DOE barracks and talked about money and values. The Bikinians had recently faced a fateful decision, he said, one that eventually took on the proportions of “a spiritual crisis.”
In December 1994, Niedenthal and a group of prominent Bikini leaders met in a San Francisco restaurant with Alex Copeson, a smooth-talking British national. Copeson represented Pan Pacific, a consortium that wanted to use a few islands in the Bikini atoll to store surplus weapons plutonium and spent nuclear fuel, the most dangerous kind of nuclear waste. Copeson’s partner,
Copeson screened a six-minute video, Used Nuclear Fuel Transportation: Safety Every Step of the Way, which purported to show steel waste containers safely sustaining an 80-mph broadside from a locomotive and being toasted to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in a burning pool of aviation fuel. Then he launched into a vivid spiel about Pan
After the islanders’ half-century of experience with nuclear contamination, the proposal might have seemed a black joke. But Copeson stressed that it would enable the Bikinians to determine their own destiny at last. “I said to them, ‘Get serious–you’re never going to get that many tourists to dive those pathetic wrecks in the lagoon,'” Copeson told me recently from his office
Niedenthal found Copeson’s presentation terrifying. “Copeson knew I was going to be a problem,” he said. “He kept telling me to get over my sixties flower-child ideals, to live in the real world.” While Niedenthal knew the Bikinians’ desire for money and the good life, having often seen them “turn into demons” at meetings in Las Vegas, he was nonetheless astonished by how
Although Niedenthal himself is not religious, he found himself adopting biblical language to sway the Bikinians. He told them he could prove from scripture that Copeson’s idea was a mistake: “Read the entire Bible from cover to cover and try to find one verse that says, ‘To turn a gift from God into a dump is the work of God.'” And then he added, “I can’t stand before you and
In the end, to Niedenthal’s great relief, the Bikinian elders decided to nix the deal and then made a firm decision not to entertain any further dump offers. Copeson remains bitter toward the Bikinians and the Marshallese government. “Their officials started squabbling over money they hadn’t even earned yet,” he said. “They’re all scam artists, banging the tin cup in front of
Instead, the Bikinians are insisting that the U.S. government carry out a full environmental restoration of the island, and they harbor hopes of returning in the next few years. This December, they decided to “seriously consider” Bill Robison’s plan for limited scraping and periodic fertilizer drops over most of the atoll. But after visiting her family’s homestead on Bikini,
Deep in the midnight-blue water of the Bikini lagoon, the USS Saratoga seemed impossibly large and strange. It was swaddled in sea fans, its 20-millimeter guns plugged with tampions of white whip coral. Jack, Regina, and I were following the huge figure of Fabio Amaral, our jolly Brazilian dive master, into the aircraft carrier’s very maw, a dark
Our halogen beams lit up the hangar deck, which remained pocked and buckled from the 1946 blast. Three Navy Helldiver aircraft were perched in the gloom, their wings folded up casually as if still ready to sortie. We hovered over the cockpits, observing the dials forlornly frozen in position, and then spiraled up through a school of saddleback groupers and three unicorn fish
As we plunged below 100 feet I kept imagining I was hearing the faint, deadly tingle of nitrogen bubbles popping into my bloodstream. Diving at such depths always poses dangers, of course, and there’s little margin for error. Getting the bends was simply not an option, since the nearest hyperbaric chamber was on Kwajalein, and the nearest plane was, well…
Fabio beckoned me to the compass bridge. His bulky form slipped through two dark, narrow doorways as effortlessly as the banded sea snake I just saw knifing by. I followed gracelessly, banging both doorways, battering my way into the tiny room. Suddenly I was overcome with a wave of claustrophobia. We hung in this watery dungeon, gazing through the tiny window holes as a
Back on the dive boat–named the Bravo, wryly enough–we chattered exuberantly about the bombs, the fish, the exquisite play of colors. A diver pays $2,750 for a week here, a fair price for some of the best diving in the world. Certainly it doesn’t translate into much of a windfall for the Bikinian people: Even when the operation is running at full
That evening, Jack Niedenthal and I found ourselves staring at the moonlit lagoon, still rhapsodizing about the dive while Regina sat cross-legged in concentration, weaving herself a headdress of frangipani blossoms tucked into a pandanus leaf. There was a Bikinian flag snapping in the breeze outside the barracks, and I noticed how oddly similar it was to the American Stars and
“It looks just like yours, goddammit,” Jack snapped. Then he grinned. “That’s the point–we’re part of you forever.”
Tad Friend’s article on an environmental “direct action camp” appeared in the October 1996 issue of Outside.
Photographs by David Roth